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At Old Crown, it's all about the coffee

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2004-05-17


Step into Old Crown Coffee Roasters at 3410 North Anthony and the first thing you’ll notice are the bins: over a dozen bins filled with freshly-roasted coffee, bearing names as evocative as their aromas — everything from French-Kissed Kona to a particularly potent brand of bean labeled the 9th Degree of Darkness. Behind the bins, toward the back of the shop, a huge, metallic machine that looks vaguely like a big bass drum rattles and sizzles as it turns raw coffee beans into one of the many tasty offerings you’ll find behind the counter and in the bins. Old Crown is no ordinary coffee shop. This is a coffee roasters.

“The easiest analogy: microbrewery does beer, a roaster does coffee,” says Mike Woodruff who owns Old Crown Coffee Roasters along with his wife Jennifer. “Instead of buying our coffee already roasted, we buy the raw materials and roast them here.”

The Woodruffs had been thinking about their own coffee shop for years before opening Old Crown in late 1999, but were looking for a way to really distinguish themselves from the explosion of coffee houses in the area and across the country. A coffee roasting demonstration they saw in Columbus, Ohio was “the lightbulb,” and the Woodruffs set about learning all they could about coffee roasting. They bought a small roaster and started a long process of trial and error, eventually selling roasted coffee out of their house to a small group of clients.

And make no mistake, coffee — the second most traded commodity in the world, after petroleum — is a complicated business. There are two basic types of coffee, Arabica and Robusta. Old Crown sells only Arabica coffee, which is grown at higher altitudes and generally considered a better quality bean (though there are exceptions, says Woodruff). They import their beans from all over the world: South America, Africa, Indonesia, Hawaii…

Like wine, a seemingly infinite number of factors go into producing a good coffee bean crop, from the weather to the soil to the altitude to the region where it’s grown. Unlike wine, however, you can’t — or you shouldn’t — store coffee. “Coffee isn’t dated, because once it’s roasted, it’s got a limited shelf life,” says Woodruff. He points to a particularly high grade of Kona that Old Crown is currently offering. “I know, in August, someone will come in and say ‘Oh, I still have some of that Kona from last Spring,’ and we’ll say ‘No! Drink it! Now!’ The fresher the better.”

So, you’ve got the two basic groups, Arabica and Robusta. Then, beyond that, you have different countries, also subdivided by region. “A coffee from Africa has a very distinct flavor profile from Indonesia, for example,” says Mike Woodruff. “Then you have different roast profiles. So, I can take a batch of that African coffee, and roast it at one level, and then roast another batch of that same coffee at another level, and they’ll have different flavor characteristics.”

A roaster has to consider all of these factors — and a few dozen more — when roasting beans. It’s as much an art as a science. If the Woodruffs weren’t necessarily coffee experts when they started out, they are now. Mike Woodruff estimates he has the equivalent of a Master’s degree in the coffee business. But all the study was essential to offer the kind of service they could be proud of. “Quality control, in two words,” says Jen Woodruff. “If we weren’t able to roast our on coffee, we probably would not have gone into business. That way we can control the quality of the product and keep it at the high level we always have wanted it.”

In the mornings and afternoons, Old Crown is full of customers reading the paper, holding meetings, or chatting with friends while enjoying a cup. There are even some baked goods and sandwiches for a light lunch or a snack. But the highlight of Old Crown is the dozen or so bins of coffee beans near the counter. The Woodruffs emphasize that Old Crown is a specialty store; they’re all about the coffee. “Old Crown is its own brand,” says Jennifer Woodruff. “We’re not franchise, we don’t serve anybody else’s coffee.”

They’re also a wholesaler, providing roasted beans to many area restaurants, such as the Dash Inn downtown, and the coffee kiosks at local hospitals.

Woodruff, a huge history buff, named Old Crown after Fort Wayne’s Old Crown brewery. The brewery closed very early in the 70s, long before Woodruff was old enough to be aware of it, but the empty remnants of the brewery were located right across the St. Joseph river from Northside, where Woodruff went to high school. He remembers people who collected beer cans and other items with the Old Crown label on them. “For starters, ‘Old Crown’ is just a good, solid name,” says Woodruff. “But the name is also our way of saying we’re from this community, we’re a part of his community, we’re committed to this community.”

And a lot of area coffee-lovers are grateful for it.

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